The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of the BBH Homeless Controversy

Photo by HeadOvMetal
03.14.2012By

Photo by HeadOvMetal

By now you have probably seen the controversy over the BBH Labs viral marketing campaign at SxSW, which paid members of Austin’s homeless community $20-$50 a day to serve as walking 4G hotspots. Make no bones about it, the campaign could have been much more successful if the strategy had included education or fundraising to combat homelessness.

Many critics saw the effort as exploitative, while others (including me) see positive benefits from the campaign, including putting the issue of homelessness at the forefront of the news. Here’s a breakdown of the good, the bad, and the ugly about BBH’s homeless marketing effort:

The Good

Like or hate this campaign, it did something that most homeless nonprofits and shelters fail to do regularly. BBH thrust the issue of homelessness to the top of the world’s media headlines.

There’s a reason why my friend Mark Horvath’s nonprofit combating homelessness is called Invisible People. Its becauseĀ  as a society, we avoid homelessness, preferring to have our governments gather up those without homes and ship them across township lines. When push comes to shove, the last thing we do is address the matter with real solutions, particularly in a time of economic distress.

The Bad

I’m not one of those people who feel paying homeless people the minimum wage to wear a T-shirt in a certain geographic area for 6 hours is exploitative. Having worked with the homeless before, I know most of these people are grateful for any kind of work, and this is pretty light duty. But what is bad is that BBH deployed this campaign without any thought for the actual plight of the homeless.

Giving homeless people a day’s pay and then garnering a world of media attention using them as a controversial touchpoint is unacceptable. Keep in mind, the University of Texas is right next door, and these able college kids would have gladly dunned the same T-shirts. The strategic decision to use homeless people was exploitative in nature.

If you’re going to market against a societal issue, you had better integrate cause marketing and corporate social responsibility initiatives. Simply affiliating with a cause that provides job training, shelter, or combats economic injustice would have gone miles to legitimize BBH’s effort. Instead we are given shades of Groupon’s 2011 Super Bowl gaffe with a marketing campaign that almost mocks the issue.

The Ugly

Perhaps the ugliest aspect of the BBH controversy is the criticisms being vetted by bloggers and media who clearly have no idea about the homeless issue. They cite giving homeless alcoholics and drug addicts money to feed their habits and other such nonsense.

Did you know that 1.6 million children in the United States are homeless? Forty two percent of these children are under the age of six. Did you know that 84% of homeless families are headed by a female? Did you know that 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness? These types of statistics stun, shock, and defy conventional public opinions on homelessness.

The BBH issue has right or wrongly exposed our ignorance about homelessness. As cause advocates, we should seize the moment to combat public misconceptions.

How You Can Help

One way is to continue the BBH conversation, and use it as a means to discuss the macro issue of homelessness. In addition, there are many ways to help the homeless, whether its serving in your local shelter or kitchen, advocating for more public service dollars to help the homeless, or simply donating to a nonprofit that combats homelessness. Please make a difference today.

The opinions expressed by Geoff Livingston in this post are his, and not Razoo Global Corporation’s.

  • Geoffu00a0excellentu00a0job framing the discussion. I have been sitting on the fence about the whole campaign. I was not quite sure where my views fell on this one. After reading this post I agree with theu00a0perspectiveu00a0presented here. u00a0I learned way more about the homeless over the past few years that dispelled many of my preconceived notions. u00a0Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the good, the bad and the what to do next!

    • Thank you for spreading the word about the post, Keith. Definitely really cool to see all of the dialogue the issue has sparked, and to me that is one of the healthiest outcomes. u00a0Keep doing good deeds, my man!

      • You too! Thanks again for all the work you are doing!

  • Katherine Bull

    Geoff, terrific piece. The stats terrify me every time I see them.Most people don’t realize that the people asking for money or living on the street are not the majority of those defined as homeless. The vast majority of the homeless are people living in shelters (women with children, in particular, escaping an abusive situation); people who have lost their jobs and are “couch surfing” at family and friends’ houses; families living in shelters; families who have exhausted their couch surfing options and living in motels or shelters. I’m 100% sure there is at least one child in my daughter’s 1st grade class who is homeless. Heartbreaking. I’m glad you continue to talk about this very real problem right in our backyards.u00a0

    • It’s pretty sad really.u00a0 We just don’t want to face this problem. It’s too easy to write it off to booze and other symptoms of the few.

  • Geoff, thank you for an excellent overview of the situation. u00a0I’ve volunteered with programs addressing poverty and homelessness on and off for close to two decades now and I’ve been musing about this scenario since I first heard the story. u00a0As you know, there are all kinds of reasons – especially these days, in this economy – for people to be homeless: families live from paycheck to paycheck, benefits change, the workforce is downsized, rent goes up, fuel costs go up, the car breaks down, there is no family safety net, veterans return from duty, health issues…the list goes on and on. u00a0And until you interact with people who are homeless, it’s often easy to make assumptions about who they are and the choices they’ve made without understanding the complex nuances of the situation.u00a0nnnWhat struck me about this situation most is from an interview I heard yesterday on NPR. They interviewed one of the men participating in this promotion. He loved it. He said he had a great time, and he enjoyed getting to interact with people and felt that he was contributing to the community. It gave him an opportunity to earn money, which he appreciated. Perhaps his perspective was unique to him. Perhaps others who participated felt exploited. I hope not, but everyone reacts to situations differently. u00a0nYou referenced Mark’s exceptional Invisible People campaign, and together with the comments I heard yesterday it reminded me of a leading complaint I’ve often heard from people who are homeless: other people simply look through them, as if to pretend they don’t exist. This, to me, is far more dehumanizing than the BBH stunt. If this promotion allowed people who are homeless to interact – really interact – with other people in a way that was mutually respectful and maybe even raised some awareness and challenged stereotypes, that seems like a good thing.u00a0Even so, your point is well taken: perhaps had BBH built in an aspect of education or call to action related to addressing poverty issues, the program might have been better received. u00a0You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about – thanks again.

    • It’s funny, I have heard this from several homeless organizations.u00a0 One organization said to me how can you demean those who are in the most demeaning situation already?u00a0 I just don’t think people get how bad it is to be homeless or what it is all about.u00a0 nnBBH could have done much worse, and in the end, they prove the axiom that no good deed goes unpunished. I do think it has been a healthy conversation.

  • Jason Korman

    Well done!

  • Solid post, Geoff, and spot on. The amount of outcry from people who don’t have a clue about the real backstory, or the plight the homeless find themselves in (and the solutions to this) just goes to show how ignorant all these “social media heroes” are. nnCheers for keeping it real, mate.

    • Once again, everyone has an opinion, informed or not.u00a0 We need to learn how to parse that.u00a0 Big challenge for our society.

  • Most Perm homeless in LA are mentally ill. Many recycle for 10 hrs of work and makeu00a0u00a0 13 dollars. Most are unemployable. Rich and big biz need to donate support housing solution . Many homeless have arrest records, ageism, mental illness, long term unemployment. I feel its a homless persons’ right to be a wifi for min wage sans what society says. Min wage WONTu00a0 provide perm housing solution.

    • mike keenan

      John are you still with us

  • Most homeless sould have the right to work for min wage as wifiu00a0 IF they CHOOSE too no matter what society deems. Min wage WONT provide perm housing. Most perm homeless are mentally ill, have;u00a0arrest record bad credit, long term unemployment and ageism.

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